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THE WAFFEN SS

AT THE BATTLE

OF KURSK

MSG JOSEPH RASMUSSEN

M05

Prior to beginning a study of the Waffen SS, and its impact at the Battle of Kursk,
it is necessary to have an understanding of what the Waffen SS really was.
Of all the German organizations during WWII, the SS is by far the most
infamous, and the least understood amongst average historians. The SS was in fact not a
monolithic "Black Corps" of goose stepping Gestapo men, as is often depicted in popular
media and in many third rate historical works. The SS was in reality a complex political
and military organization made up of three separate and distinct branches, all related but
equally unique in their functions and goals. The Allgemeine SS (General SS) was the
main branch of this overwhelmingly complex organization, and it served a political and
administrative role. The SS-Totenkopfverbande (SS Deaths Head Organization) and later,
the Waffen SS (Armed SS), were the other two branches that made up the structure of the
SS. The Waffen SS, formed in 1940, was the true military formation of the larger SS, and
as such, it is the main focus ofthis paper. Formed from the SS-Verfungstruppe after the
Campaign in France in 1940, the Waffen SS would become an elite military formation of
nearly 900,000 men by the time World War II was over. Its units would spearhead some
of the most crucial battles of the war, while its men would shoulder some of the most
difficult and daunting combat operations of all of the units in the German military. The
Waffen SS is sometimes thought of as the fourth branch ofthe German Wehrmacht
(Heer, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine) as in the field it came under the direct tactical control of
the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW, or High Command), although this notion is
technically incorrect as strategic control remained within the hands of the SS. To this day
the actions of the Waffen SS and its former members are vilified for ultimately being a
part of the larger structure of the political Allgemeine SS, regardless ofthe fact that the
Waffen SS was a front line combat organization.
The Waffen SS itself was something unusually special. It had started out as a
small-sized personal bodyguard for Adolf Hitler, but gradually expanded into a full-scale
military force under the guidance of a number of disgruntled former Army officers who
saw the Waffen SS as a chance to break out from the conservative mold that the German
Army had become mired in. The Waffen SS was designed from the start to be a highly
mobile assault force whose soldiers were well versed in the art of handling modem,
close-combat weapons. The training regimen therefore resembled that given to special
commandos in other countries, but it pre-dated u.s. and British commando training by
nearly a decade.
Waffen SS recruitment standards went through several stages during the course of
the war. Designed at first to be an elite formation of Germans, it grew to be so large
through attrition, and the demands for replacements, that it inevitably abandoned all but
its most basic requirements, and opened its ranks to anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity,
or nationality. In the beginning, recruitment standards for Waffen SS soldiers were very
stringent. Potential recruits were expected to be between the ages of seventeen and
twenty-two, and a minimum of sixty-nine inches tall. They also could not have a
criminal record of any kind. Enlisted men were required to have a pure "Aryan"
genealogy dating back to the year 1800; an officer's genealogy had to be pur.e dating
back to the year 1750. The requirements were in fact so stringent that only fifteen out-of
every one hundred applicants were accepted. It is also worth stressing that the stringent
selection process that was maintained in the elite divisions during the early part of the

war meant that men who could have served as NCOs and junior officers in other units,
served as Privates in the best SS units.
The young men who joined the SS were trained like no other army in the world.
Military and academic instruction was intensive, but it was the physical training that was
the most rigorous. They excelled at sports, and each of them would have performed with
distinction at the Olympic Games. The extraordinary physical endurance of the SS on the
Russian front was due to this intensive training. It was on the front lines that the results
of the SS physical training could really be noticed. An SS officer or NCO had the same
rigorous training as the soldiers. The officers, NCOs, and privates competed in the same
sports events, and only the best man won, regardless of rank, creating an atmosphere that
sponsored team work, mutual respect, and reliance. This created a real brotherhood which
literally energized the entire Waffen SS. In one field, that of internal personnel
organization, the Waffen-SS has yet to be imitated much less surpassed. The Waffen-SS
was probably the most "democratic" armed force in modem times. Rigid formality and
class structure between officers and other ranks was strictly forbidden. An officer held
down his position only because he had proven himself a better soldier than his men, not
because of any rank in society, family connections or superior academic education.
There was also the ideological training. They were taught why they were fighting,
and saw the kind of Germany that was being resurrected before their very eyes. They
were shown how Germany was being morally united through class reconciliation and
physically united through the return of lost German homelands. They were made aware
of their kinship with all of the other Germans living in foreign lands, such as Poland,
Russia, the Sudentenland, and other parts of Europe. They were taught that all Germans
represented an ethnic unity.
Young SS men were educated in two military academies, one in Bad Tolz, the
other in Braunschweig. These academies were totally different from the grim barracks of
the past. Combining aesthetics with the latest technology, they were located in the middle
of hundreds of acres of beautiful country.
The SS had proved themselves in action. They were not empty talking politicians,
but they gave their lives, the first to go and fight in an extraordinary spurt of
comradeship. This comradeship was one of the most distinctive characteristics of the SS:
the SS leader was the comrade of the others. The relationship of equality and mutual
respect between soldiers, NCOs, and officers was always present. SS officers and NCOs
always led their troops into battle, and were the first to meet the enemy. Half of all of the
SS divisional commanders were killed in action. There is not another army in the world
where this happened. SS soldiers were not sent to slaughter by behind-the-line leaders,
they followed their leaders with passionate loyalty. Every SS commander knew and
taught all his men, and could expect the loyalty of their men by their example. The life
expectancy of an SS officer at the front was three months; an NCO was only expected to
survive 9 weeks.
Waffen SS basic training lasted three weeks. The focus, aside from the physical
training already mentioned, was character training, and weapons training. From the
outset the system promoted combat training and maneuvers at the expense of traditional
drill. The focus was on battlefield tactics and independently thinking officers and NCOs.
An SS recruit might be told to dig himself into the ground knowing that within a
prescribed time, tanks would drive over his head, whether the hole was completed or not.

A new fonn of soldiering emerged. Waffen SS troops could cover three kilometers in
full field dress in twenty minutes; such a thing was unheard of in the Anny. The Waffen
SS believed in stressing aggressiveness, initiative, and self-reliance. These were
achieved by realistic live firing exercises, rigid discipline, and obedience. As a result, the
premier Waffen SS Divisions had superior marksmanship skills, and was very proficient
at night maneuvers and camouflage techniques. The Waffen SS was always open to new
ideas and innovations in tenns of training; the Panzer crews of the 12th SS Panzer
Division were required as part of their training to spend a week working on the assembly
line at the MAN tank factory in Nuremburg. As the war progressed, lessons learned on
the field of battle were quickly adopted in the training establishments. This was often to
teach the problems encountered in various terrains and climates, and techniques to
overcome these obstacles, and ultimately saved many lives.
The SS soldiers were held to higher standards and were subjected to the strictest
discipline. Sentences handed down by SS courts were more severe than sentences passed
by other courts for the same offense. There also was a camaraderie fostered by infonnal
relationships between the officers, NCOs, and men, in contrast to the stiff discipline
prevalent in the regular Gennan anny and the Allied forces. Officers and men addressed
each other as "Kamerad" when off duty. An example of discipline in the Waffen SS was
the standing rule that locks were forbidden on lockers; such was the emphasis on trust
and loyalty. Obedience was unconditional. This helps explain the remarkable ability of
the Liebstandarte (LSSAH) and Hitlerjugend (HJ) divisions to quickly incorporate and
indoctrinate raw replacements.
It did not take long for the initial resentment of the Waffen SS by the Anny to
grow to admiration, and from late 1941, the Anny often became dependent on them. The
Waffen SS came to be known as the "Fuhrer's Fire Brigade", always being sent into
difficult and even impossible situations to bolster or rescue regular Anny units, often at
great costs in both men and equipment to them. The Waffen SS were often kept at the
front for prolonged periods of time without rest or refit because their qualities were so
often needed and depended upon it was feared that whole fronts might collapse. As
General Eberhard von Mackensen wrote: " Every division wishes it had the Leibstandarte
as its neighbor, as much during the attack as the defense. Its inner discipline, its cool dare
deviltry, its cheerful enterprise, its unshakeable firmness in a crisis ... its exemplary
toughness, its camaraderie (which deserves special praise), all these are outstanding and
cannot be surpassed". In July 1941 the LSSAH took part in the invasion of Russia and it
was during this campaign that the Waffen SS, and in particular the LSSAH earned their
reputation for their ferocity during battle. The eagerness of the Waffen SS for combat
coupled with their fanaticism bordered on the reckless and during the opening stages of
World War II, many of them were killed in action.
The weapon used by the Waffen SS at the Battle of Kursk that I will focus on in
this paper is the Panzerkampfwagen VI, or "Tiger". It is probably the most famous and
feared Gennan tank of the war, and rightfully so. The Tiger was manned by a crew of
five, three of whom manned the turret and main gun. The first of these was the
Commander, typically an NCO, the most important member of the crew. His central role
involved the sighting of targets, and directing other members of the crew from his
rotating cupola situated at the left rear of the turret. The commander's role called for
high levels of concentration and coordination, attributes that were especially critical

during close-quarter combat. The second crewman, located inside the cramped turret
below, and in front ofthe commander was the gunner. His primary tasks were traversal
of the turret, the sighting of targets, and the firing ofthe 88mm Ll56 Kwk main gun. The
third member of the crew, located on the right hand side of the turret was the loader, who
was responsible for the loading of the appropriate type of ammunition as specified by the
gunner into the breech of the main gun. The fourth position was that of the driver, who
was seated in the front of the hull on the left hand side. It was the driver's sole
responsibility to maneuver the vehicle safely and coordinate effectively with the
commander. In more experienced crews, the driver more often than not assisted the
gunner in locking onto targets by turning towards the enemy, a technique which
compensated for the slow rate of turret traverse in the Tiger. The fifth and final
crewmember was the bow machine gunner/radio operator, who was seated at the front of
the hull to the right of the driver. As the title suggests, this man was responsible for
maintaining radio contact with other tanks in the platoon, and for manning the MG34
machine gun mounted in the front plate of the hull.
The battlefield strengths of the Tiger were essentially defined by the vehicles two
major characteristics. First, was its exceptionally thick armor plating, particularly in the
front hull and turret, which was in some places 100mm thick. Second, was its powerful
88mm Ll56 KwK main gun. During the battle of Kursk, the standard opponent faced by
Tiger crews was the Russian T-34. Although a formidable tank for it's time, the T-34
would have to close in to suicidal distances to even have a chance against a Tiger.
Conversely, the powerful gun mounted on the Tiger could destroy opponents at massive
distances. On the wide expanses of the Russian front, these capabilities more than made
up for the Tiger's inherent weaknesses, which included its slow rate of turret traverse,
lack of mobility, and vulnerable rear and hull top armor plate. The 88mm Ll56 KwK
main gun was an adaptation of the successful anti-tank version of the famous "eighty
eight" Flak gun, and was capable of penetrating 112mm of armor at a distance of 1400M.
It was capable of firing armor piercing, high explosive, or high explosive, anti-tank
rounds. Each Tiger carried 92 rounds of main gun ammunition, and was also equipped
with two 7.92mm, MG34 machine guns for use against infantry personnel, and light
vehicles.
The Battle of Kursk was a significant battle on the Eastern Front of World War
II. It remains the largest armored engagement of all time, and included the most costly
single day of aerial warfare in history. Initiated as a German offensive, the Soviet defense
managed to stop their ambitions and launch a successful counteroffensive.
The German Army relied on armored forces to push through enemy lines at high
speed, the famous Blitzkrieg tactic. This meant they were only able to assume the offense
during the summer when the Russian summer had dried out the ground enough for the
tanks to be highly mobile. The Eastern Front had thus developed into a series of German
advances in the summer, followed by Soviet counterattacks in the winter.
In the winter of 1942 the Soviets won conclusively during the Battle of
Stalingrad. One complete German army had been lost, along with about 300,000 men,
seriously depleting German strength in the east. With an Allied invasion of Europe
clearly looming, Hitler realized that an outright defeat of the Soviets before the western
Allies arrived was unlikely, and decided to force the Soviets to a draw.

In February and March 1943 Erich von Manstein had completed an offensive
during the Second Battle of Kharkov, leaving the front line running roughly from
Leningrad in the north to Rostov in the south. In the middle was a large 200 km wide and
150 km deep salient (bulge) in the lines between German forward positions near Orel in
the north, and Manstein's recently captured Kharkov in the south. Manstein pressed for a
new offensive based on the same successful lines he had just pursued at Kharkov, when
he cut off an overextended Soviet offensive. He suggested tricking the Soviets into
attacking in the south against the desperately re-forming 6th Army, leading them into the
Donets Basin in the eastern Ukraine. He would then turn south from Kharkov on the
eastern side of the Donets River towards Rostov and trap the entire southern wing of the
Red Army against the Sea of Azov.
OKW did not approve the plan, and instead turned their attention to the obvious
bulge in the lines between Orel and Kharkov. There were three complete armies in and
around the salient, and pinching it off would trap almost a fifth of the Red Army's
manpower. It would also result in a much straighter and shorter line, and capture the
strategically useful railway town of Kursk located on the main north-south railway line
running from Rostov to Moscow.
In March the plans were settled. Walther Model's 9th Army would attack south
from Orel while Hoth's 4th Panzer Army and Army Detachment Kempf under the overall
command of Manstein would attack north from Kharkov. They were to meet near Kursk,
but if the offensive went well they were allowed to continue forward on their own
initiative, with a general plan to create a new line on the Don River far to the east.
Unlike recent efforts, Hitler gave the General Staff considerable control over the planning
of the battle. Over the next few weeks they continued to increase the scope of the forces
attached to the front, stripping the entire German line of practically anything remotely
useful in the upcoming battle. The battle was first set for May 4, but then delayed until
June 12, and finally July 4 in order to allow more time for new weapons to arrive from
Germany, especially the new Tiger tanks. It is worth discussing this plan in terms ofthe
traditional, and successful, blitzkrieg tactic used up to this point. Blitzkrieg depended on
massing all available troops at a single point on the enemy line, breaking through, and
then running as fast as possible to cut off the front line troops from supply and
information. Direct combat was to be avoided at all costs; there is no point in attacking a
strongpoint if the same ends can be had by instead attacking the trucks supplying them.
The best place for Blitzkrieg was the least expected, which is why they had attacked
through the Ardennes in 1940, and towards Stalingrad in 1942.
OKW's Operation Citadel was the antithesis of this concept. The point of attack was
painfully obvious to anyone with a map, and reflected World War I thinking more than
the Blitzkrieg. A number of German commanders questioned the idea, notably Heinz
Guderian.
The German delay in launching their offensive gave the Soviets four months in
which to prepare, and with every passing day they turned the salient into one of the most
heavily defended points on earth. The Red Army laid over 400,000 landmines and dug
about 5,000 kilometers of trenches, with positions as far back as 175km. In addition, they
massed a huge army of their own, including some 1,300,000 men, 3,600 tanks, 20,000
artillery pieces and 2,400 aircraft. It was still unclear whether or not it would help; in the
past the Germans had overrun their lines with seeming ease.

In the four months before the Germans felt ready, they had collected 200 of the new
Panther tanks, 90 Elefant tank destroyers, every flyable Henschel Hs 129 ground attack
aircraft, as well as a host of Tiger Is and late model Panzer IV s. In total they assembled
some 2,700 tanks and assault guns, 1,800 aircraft and 900,000 men. It was the greatest
concentration of German fighting power ever put together. Even so, Hitler expressed
doubts about its adequacy.
Preliminary fighting started on the 4th of July. In the afternoon Junkers Ju 87
Stukas bombed a two mile wide gap in the front lines on the north in a short period of 10
minutes, and then turned for home while the German artillery opened up to continue the
pounding. Hoth's armored spearhead, the 3rd Panzer Corps then advanced on the Soviet
positions around Savidovka. At the same time the Grossdeutschland Panzer Grenadier
Regiment attacked Butovo in torrential rain, and the high ground around Butovo was
taken by 11th Panzer Division. To the west of Butovo the going proved tougher for
Grossdeutschland and 3rd Panzer Division who met stiff Soviet resistance and did not
secure their objectives until midnight. In the south the 2nd SS Panzer Corps were
launching their preliminary attacks to secure observation posts, and again were met with
stiff resistance until assault troops equipped with flame-throwers cleared the bunkers and
outposts. At 2230 the Soviets hit back with an artillery bombardment which, aided by the
torrential rain, slowed the German advance. By this time Zhukov had been briefed on the
information about the start of the offensive gained by the German prisoners and decided
to launch a pre-emptive artillery bombardment on the German positions.
The real battle opened on 5 July 1943. The Soviets, now aware even ofthe exact time,
commenced a massive artillery bombardment of the German lines 10 minutes prior. This
was soon followed by a massive attack by the VVS on the Luftwaffe airbases in the area,
in an attempt to reverse the tables on the old German "trick" of wiping out local air
support within the first hour of battle. The next few hours turned into what is likely the
largest air battle to ever be fought. The Luftwaffe defended itself successfully and lost
very little of its fighting power, but from now on it was challenged by the Soviets.
The 9th Panzer Army in the north found itself almost unable to move. Within only
minutes of starting forward they were trapped in the huge defensive minefields, and
needed engineering units to come up and clear them under artillery fire. Model's army
had fewer tanks than Manstein had in the south. He also used a different tactic, using only
some units at a time thus saving the others for later use, whereas the Germans usually
would attack with everything they had got to maximize the effect. This was something
they were able to do because of their superior training of low-ranking officers and
individual soldiers. For some reason Model did not use this tactic, though.
After a week they had moved only 10km into the lines, and on the 12th the Soviets
launched their northern arm against the 2nd Army at Orel. The 9th had to be withdrawn
and their part in the offensive was over. Their casualty rate versus the Red Army was
about 5:3 in their favor. This was however far worse than usual, and very far from where
it needed to be in order to keep up with the steady influx of new soldiers and materiel for
the Red Army.
In the south things went somewhat better for the Germans. The armored
spearhead of the Hoth's 4th Panzer Army forced their way forward, and by the 6th were
some 30km behind the lines at the small town Prokhorovka. Considering that they had
attacked without the element of surprise against a dug-in and numerically superior

enemy, this was quite an achievement.


The Red Army was forced to deploy troops originally planned to be used in the
counteroffensive. The German flank, however, was unprotected as Kempfs divisions
were stalled by 7th Guards Army, and by heavy rain, after crossing the River Donets. The
5th Guards Tank Army was situated to the east ofProkhorovka and was preparing a
counterattack of their own when II SS Panzer Corps arrived and an intense struggle
ensued. The Soviets managed to halt the SS - but only just. There was now little to stop
the 4th Panzer Army, and it looked like a breakout was a very real possibility. The
Soviets decided to deploy the rest of the 5th Guards.
On 12 July the Luftwaffe and artillery units bombed the Soviet positions as the SS
divisions formed up. The German advance started and they were astonished to see masses
of Soviet armor advancing towards them. What followed was the largest tank
engagement ever, with over 1,500 tanks in close contact. The air forces of both countries
flew overhead, but they were unable to see anything through the dust and smoke pouring
out from destroyed tanks. On the ground, commanders were unable to keep track of
developments and the battle rapidly degenerated into an immense number of confused
and bitter small-unit actions, often at close quarters. The fighting raged on all day, and by
evening the last shots were being fired as the two sides disengaged.
It was a Soviet victory only in one sense, the German attack was halted. Most
Soviet tanks were destroyed by the Germans at long range, and relatively few were
involved in short range exchanges of fire. German losses were actually relatively few and
for most of the day they were fighting in good order. The Soviet losses were 322 tanks, of
which more than half beyond repair, more than 1000 dead and an additional 2500 missing
or wounded. German losses were less than 20% of that. The Germans had however
planned to be on the offensive that day, and because of the Red Army attack their
advance had been halted.
The overall battle of Kursk still hung in the balance. German forces on the
southern wing were exhausted and heavily atritted, but at the same time faced equally
weak defenses and were in excellent position, clear of the defensive works and with no
forces between them and Kursk.
On 11 July in the midst of Citadel, US and British forces landed on Sicily. Hitler
called von Kluge and Manstein to his Wolfsschanze headquarters in East Prussia and
declared that he was calling Citadel off. Manstein was furious, and argued that one final
effort and the battle could be won. Hitler would have none of it, particularly as the
Soviets had launched their counteroffensive in the north.
Some German units were immediately sent off to Italy, and only limited attacks
continued in the south, to get rid of a Soviet force squeezed between two German armies.
On the 22nd both forces were utterly exhausted and fighting (officially) drew to a close.
The battle was not a clear-cut victory for the Soviets who had suffered much higher
casualties than the Germans. The Germans however had for the first time lost substantial
territories during summer and had not been able to achieve their goals. A new front had
opened in Italy diverting their attention. Both sides had their losses, but only the Soviets
had the manpower and the industrial production to recover fully. The Germans never
regained the initiative after Kursk.
The Germans lost approximately 56,000 men killed. The Soviet casualty figures
were not released until the end of the communist regime, and comprised 250,000 killed

and 600,000 wounded. They also lost 50% of their tank strength during the Kursk
offensive.
The fighting qualities of the Germanic Waffen SS divisions were established in
the early stages of the war, and grew in intensity and did not cease until the end of
hostilities in 1945. This was particularly evident on the Eastern Front where the fighting
was the most brutal.
The Waffen SS won a unique reputation for daring elan and unfailing
professionalism in combat. Yet if their courage was unquestioned, so too was the fear and
loathing which they elicited; even eventually amongst their own people, and in the
regular soldiers alongside whom they fought. The Waffen SS played a conspicuous role
in most of the important German triumphs, far disproportionate to their numbers. In the
long period of decline and retreat, the Germans were steadily pushed back from the east
and west. Despite sustaining horrendous casualties, their discipline remained unbroken,
and their fighting ardor unimpaired, almost to the very end.